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Somber West Virginia coal community starts burying its own

As frantic rescue efforts play out in a mine nearby, families and friends say farewell to the veteran miners already lost.

April 10, 2010|By David Zucchino and Kim Geiger

Reporting from Mullens, W.Va. — Benny Willingham once told his Pentecostal preacher that he prayed the Lord would take his soul if he didn't make it home from his shift in the coal mine.

On Friday morning, Willingham lay in a flag-draped casket, the images of a pick, a shovel and a miner's helmet sewn into the lining. On the church pews behind him, his wife, Edie Mae, and mother, Cleo, sat sobbing as a pianist played a slow, disconsolate rendition of "Amazing Grace."

The funerals of the Upper Big Branch miners had begun. Twenty-nine are confirmed dead after the powerful explosion that tore through the mine Monday. Four of the miners whose bodies have been recovered were mourned in solemn ceremonies tinged with elegiac tributes to the nobility of the men who go daily into the mines to feed their families.

The mines give, and the mines take away. And much like military service, a coal-mining career is considered not merely a profession, but a distinction, almost a public service. It is a way of life sustained by an abiding faith that God will protect every man who earns his pay underground.

Willingham, dead at 61 after 30 years in the mines, found joy and sustenance in working coal seams.

"But he knew there was a chance he might not make it home," said his preacher and close friend, the Rev. Gary Pollard.

Pollard wrote a song for his friend, a man he called "a devoted brother in Christ." The overflow crowd at the Pentecostal Holiness Church was hushed as Pollard, his brow damp from the effort, picked out the tune on a piano and began to sing:

I make my living in a coal black hole. . . . You got to give your life to Jesus. You know he likes coal miners too.

It was a sad, trying day along the Big Coal River. The word from the mountaintop above the Upper Big Branch mine was relentlessly disheartening: The rescue teams were in, they were out, they were back in.

People fiddled with their car radios on the way to memorials and viewings and funerals. They struggled to catch a snatch of news about the last four miners. Their bodies were found early Saturday, officials said.

There were plenty of miners and miners' families squeezed onto narrow chairs at the low-ceilinged Armstrong Funeral Home chapel, just up Route 3 in tiny Whitesville. Some had driven right past the Upper Big Branch mine.

"I never thought I'd see what I saw when I came down that road today," said the Rev. Donnie Russell, embarking on a painful eulogy to his close friend, miner Deward Allan Scott.

Scott, 58, lay in his casket, his pale form framed by a cascade of floral arrangements. A few feet away sat his wife, Crissie Lynn, and his old miner friends and his grandchildren, all dabbing at their eyes with moist tissues.

Several mining companies sent flowers -- Martin County Coal Co. and Long Fork Coal Co., even though Scott worked for Massey Energy Co. It's a brotherhood, the preacher explained. Massey sent an intricate blue and yellow handmade mountain quilt.

"I'm not angry at the mountain" for taking the life of his friend, Russell told the mourners. "That mountain has supported my family for 90 years."

It supported Scott's family for 21 years. Scott took a break from mining at one point, Russell said, but returned to the work he loved.

"He couldn't stay away," Russell said.

There was gospel music, and more tears, and then a caravan led by sheriff's deputies snaked its way to Workman's Creek Cemetery in Clear Creek, where Scott was laid to rest.

At the other end of Route 3, lumbering coal trucks negotiated the curves, still serving dozens of active mines in the 30 miles of hollows between Whitesville and Beckley.

The drivers spotted hand-drawn signs held aloft by people who had gathered on the shoulder. The truckers sounded their horns, the deep growls echoing off the mountains.

One sign read: "God Bless WVa miners."

And another: "Without Our Miners There Would Be No Light."

Hoisting one sign was Allen Cox, 29, his square face smeared with black coal dust. He had just left the third shift at the Cabin Creek mine.

He once worked at a Massey mine with several of the dead miners.

"We don't work in coal mines because we're ignorant, but because we're highly trained professionals," Cox said. "It's ingrained in our culture. We're proud of the vital service we provide to the country."

He knows the risks all too well. "God forbid, if the worst happens, we'll move on to the next life knowing we did all we could to provide for our families," he said.

Benny Willingham did just that, Pollard told the mourners as the memorial drew to a close. He did it for his children, the preacher said, and for what he called his six "precious grandbabies."

A letter was read aloud in the chapel. It was written by Willingham's grandson Travis McKinney, who said he treasured the turkey gun his granddad had given him. The letter ended, "I know I'll see you again, Paw Paw."

From the pews, barely audible above the sobs, came a soft chorus: "Amen. Amen."

david.zucchino

@latimes.com

kim.geiger@latimes.com

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